Pixar’s Latest Tearjerker Onward Is A Better Version Of Jack Frost
A dead parent, a magical gift, an emotional adventure: Onward looks to be Pixar’s newest rollicking tearjerker in the vein of Jack Frost.
Jessie’s abandonment, Nemo’s egg, Carl and Ellie, Bing Bong, Remember Me: the iconic animation studio’s partnership with Disney has yielded some of cinema’s greatest assaults on the heart.
As a special treat, UNILAD flew over to Pixar’s San Francisco headquarters to check out some exclusive footage from their latest film, Onward – a landmark foray into the world of fantasy with reminiscent strokes of Michael Keaton’s 1998 festive flick, only with a lot more trash-barging unicorns.
Directed by Dan Scanlon and produced by Kori Rae, the two creative whizzes behind Monsters University (with a flurry of contributions across the studio’s oeuvre), it’s a star-studded blend of the real and whimsical.
We’re in whole new world, one formerly filled with bountiful magic. Long ago, the world was full of wonder,’ the opening narration recounts, as it shows its quick erosion at the hands of modern inventions and conveniences (who needs a light spell when you have a bulb?).
It allowed the filmmaking duo to exercise their creativity in a playground they’d never visited: one without guidelines, no rules, no legacy. ‘It’s a little more wide-open’, Rae said.
Discussing the evolution from Monsters University to Onward, Scanlon told UNILAD:
Monsters University is a sequel – or prequel, I guess – so it’s got its own set of challenges. You can’t change the characters too much – you’ve gotta find ways to grow and keep them the Mike and Sully we know and love, which is a fun challenge.
Whereas doing an original is just such a new experience – you’re making it all up from a whole cloth so you can change the characters, you can eliminate characters, you can make them what they need to be to tell this story. I think that was the biggest difference.
Amid this fresh clash of reality and sorcery, the movie follows Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot, two vastly different teenage elf brothers: the former is shy and unsure of himself as he faces ‘adulthood and its gauntlet of challenges’, the latter is brash, burly and uninhibited.
In between their social kerfuffles, they clash and laugh with their mum Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). As for the brothers’ dad (whose identity shall be kept secret for now), he passed away before Ian was even born.
On Ian’s 16th birthday, as Barley says: ‘By the laws of yore, I must dub thee a man today.’ As a present, Laurel whips out a wizard’s staff that belonged to their dad, one capable of summoning him for one more day – however, when they try, they somehow only conjure his legs, leading them on an adventure to bring back the rest of him before dusk.
For those familiar with Jack Frost (the family film, not the bizarre low-budget horror), the similarities are immediate. In that film, Jack (Keaton), a dad with serious time-keeping issues, gives his 11-year-old son his best harmonica – promising that he’ll be able to hear it wherever he is, and it’ll always bring him home.
While Onward‘s dad’s death is something only alluded to, never seen, we see Keaton’s tragic demise: a car crash through the falling snow. In the aftermath, his son Charlie – like Ian – is shaken, struggling to find his mojo as he copes with the tremors of grief (while Ian wants to be ‘bold’, Charlie wants to learn the ‘j-shot’).
One night, just before going to sleep, Charlie plays the harmonica. Amazingly, it turns out to be magical after all, resurrecting the spirit of his dad which ends up residing in the front garden’s snowman – so he’s partially back, not entirely. From here, they embark on adventure to keep Jack around as long as possible – again, the rhythms of the two films are obvious.
It makes sense, considering Scanlon’s personal inspiration for Onward. At the film’s premiere, he said:
The movie is inspired by my own experience of losing my father at a young age, and my brother and I not remembering him, and growing up and wondering whether we were like him. That question of ‘What if we could spend a day with him?’ became the film Onward.
[My brother] saw it and he loved it. He is a big sweetheart. He was moved by it. He has seen it twice now. He is just so supportive of it and excited about it. It was a dream come true to have him see it. I would ask other people to do the same. Bring your brother, bring your sister. Bring the friend who was like a brother or sister and watch it with them. I think it creates a dialogue that is pretty wonderful.
However, unlike the overt, aged schmaltz of its thematic counterpart, Onward is a league above in every way. Jack Frost employed classic songs to fondle the heartstrings, like Fleetwood Mac’s beautifully bleak Landslide, whereas Pixar’s latest leans on the soaring, paramount composition of Mychael and Jeff Danna to erupt the goosebumps.
While the harmonica power behind Keaton’s snowy, hilariously CGI’d daddy is ill-defined, Scanlon and Rae’s crew invented their own brand-new magical rules, with bombastic, dazzling visual effects to boot.
‘It needed to be chaotic, because you have this main character who’s shy and afraid of change and challenges – so the magic needed to be the opposite of that. It needed to be something a little scary, a little dangerous, a little wild. Then, they designed something beautiful based on that,’ the director explained.
Rae added, to UNILAD:
We knew we wanted it to be kind of aged up, you know? He’s a teenager in the film, you know, so we didn’t want it to be too young. It needed to have that oomph, that power, but still be fun – but have all that chaos and the unexpected results.
Pixar’s track record is near-impenetrable, forever adept at crafting stirring adventures with no boundaries of age. Whether it be grief, self-doubt or uncertainty over who exactly you want to be, the light lies in one direction: Onward.
Onward hits UK cinemas on March 6.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]